It's a sad fact, but the conflicts in the Middle East are showing no signs of cooling off any time soon. However, if there is a small silver lining in the black clouds of burning oil, it's that they make a damn fine videogame setting. Full Spectrum Warrior is the latest PC wargame to storm the desert, and this third-person squad-based action title, already released on Xbox, is certainly one of the most original and enjoyable.
Set in the fictitious country of Zekistan - a sort of hybrid of Iraq and Afghanistan - the game puts you in command of UN and NATO-backed American soldiers on a mission to depose the terrorist leader Al Afad, blamed for the genocide and sterilisation of the ethnic Zeki people.
There are two fire teams under your command - Alpha and Bravo. Each is made up of four soldiers with special skills. There's a high-ranking Team Leader for issuing commands and taking charge, as well as an Automatic Rifleman armed with a fast-firing M249 machine gun. Plus, there's a Grenadier holding an M203 grenade launcher, and a Rifleman packing a light rifle, available for giving aid to injured soldiers in battle.
Full Spectrum Warrior is not your standard third-person shooter - for a start, you only directly control the aim of a weapon when you're using grenades. Basically, the gameplay is about deploying your two light infantry squads (sometimes growing to three) to the best of your ability. Use the best tactical positions, take cover at all times, take out opposition forces and make it to your next objective without getting any soldiers killed. In some ways, it's like a more complex, true 3D Cannon Fodder - but maybe I've spent too much time in combat lately...
You certainly learn an army-dictionary worth of new phrases, the first and most important being MOUT, or Military Operations in Urban Terrain. This is how you operate in a hostile, built-up environment teeming with dug-in enemy snipers, mortars and tanks.
This is one of the best elements of Full Speccy Warrior - that it actually teaches you much about how soldiers plan and execute military operations in urban areas. No great surprise really, considering that Pandemic initially developed the game as a training tool for the US army.
Where To, Sarge?
Moving your Alpha and Bravo squads is simple and intuitive. First, choose which team you want to control by clicking the mouse wheel, then tap the right mouse button and you instantly bring up four location markers that represent where your four soldiers can be positioned in the environment. You can now move these circular markers around the gritty 3D world, and watch as they automatically suggest correct formations depending on the context - in a line behind a wall, for example, or in a wedge shape behind a burnt-out car.
It's beautifully simple, but also brings an element of tension as there's always a few seconds between issuing commands by tapping the left mouse button, and seeing them carried out on the battlefield. This delay can be fatal if you don't give your troops enough cover from enemy fire, as it's difficult to react quickly if you make a duff decision.
Actually, yomping your fire teams around the environment is when FSW makes its first big impression. The juddering, handheld view of the game's camera as it follows behind the shoulder of the soldiers is truly fantastic, giving a real documentary feel to the action - you half expect a flak jacket-wearing Kate Adie to pop up from behind a pile of sandbags.
As well as rushing your troops around, you can move them using a 'bounding' move, which is a slower, but more methodical manoeuvre. Your team of four troops split into two smaller teams of two to cover each other, with the added bonus that they'll be on alert and react instantly if fired upon. The animation of your troops during this move - as with most of the game - is impressive, with your soldiers holding their weapons menacingly, constantly checking for enemies in the direction you've ordered them to face.